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The Bigger Picture Around Juniper Oak - by Caroline D. Rose - for Geopolitical Futures - 20.02.23

Though the military exercise was geared toward Iran, it suggests much more strategic calculations.

In late January, U.S. and Israeli forces staged a military exercise called Juniper Oak, their largest, most complex exercise to date. Planned in just 90 days, the U.S. and Israel sent nearly 150 aircraft, a dozen warships, advanced artillery systems, and just shy of 8,000 soldiers, including infantry and special operations forces, to simulate a large-scale attack by land, air, sea, space and cyberspace.

An exercise of that magnitude – assembled that quickly – drew the attention of pretty much every country in the world, many of which couldn’t help but see it as a simulated attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities. After all, tensions are rising, nuclear negotiations are dead in the water, and the U.S. and Israel are likely considering every option.

Several U.S. military and defense officials denied that Juniper Oak had anything to do with Iran, but the scope, scale and complexity of the exercise suggested otherwise. It incorporated combatant command elements, executing missions on command and control, maritime surface warfare, air operations, combat search and rescue, cyber and electronic attacks, and strike coordination, reconnaissance and air interdiction. Live-fire exercises were conducted in waves to simulate repeated missile, bomb and HIMARS attacks.

The U.S. deployed KC-46 air refueling tankers – an aircraft that would absolutely be involved in an attack on Iran – allowing Israeli pilots to familiarize themselves with the planes before they receive their own. Other aircraft that would be used to penetrate Iranian air defenses were notably absent, but all told Juniper Oak checked a lot of the boxes, including support assets, mechanics and logistics, that would be vital in any large-scale assault against Iran.

Though Iran was an important element of the exercise, it wasn’t the only one, and perhaps not even the most important one. As the exercise concluded, CENTCOM officials promised to build upon Juniper Oak, accelerate regional interoperability, expand to include more participants, and eventually institutionalize the combined exercise.

From this there is only one conclusion: that the U.S. has every intention to follow through with its drawdown in the Middle East, and that it hopes to steadily build a security architecture where regional partners assume more responsibility.

To that end, Washington sees bilateral cooperation with Israel as the first step toward much grander designs. Israel is a natural partner given its armed forces’ advanced readiness, modernization, and sophisticated combined arms capabilities, which allow the Israel Defense Forces to punch above its weight. Israel actively participates in bilateral and multilateral exercises with countries such as Greece and Italy that it hopes will eventually be part of a regional anti-Iranian coalition.

The timing of Juniper Oak is also telling, coming as it did at an unusually accommodative time in the Middle East. The U.S.-led Abraham Accords have paved the way for Israel to mend ties with certain Arab countries and, perhaps someday, launch overt security cooperation. Turkey, meanwhile, has warmed ties with regional adversaries such as the United Arab Emirates and has dialed down its aggressive posturing against traditional rivals in the eastern Mediterranean.

More, the ice from the 2017 diplomatic crisis between Qatar and other Arab countries has begun to melt, facilitating cooperation and cohesion in the Gulf Cooperation Council. Looming over all of this – and, in fact, spurring much of it – is Iran. As the U.S. retreats, there is greater demand for a formal security mechanism to counter Tehran, especially as nuclear talks fail and as covert Iranian operations rise. Put simply, the conditions for a regional security mechanism to collectively counter Iran have never been this ripe.

That’s not to say it’s destined to happen or, if it happens, that it will succeed. But all the signs are there. Washington is clearly laying the groundwork for greater regional security cooperation, the ultimate objective of which is to allow trusted partners to handle their own affairs as it pivots to Europe and the Indo-Pacific.

In the coming months, the U.S. will probably try to bring new participants into the fold, enticing countries that don’t need much encouragement anyway (Egypt, Greece and the UAE) with equipment deals, capacity-building exercises or other incentives. It’s also likely that the U.S. will seek to play a greater role in regional normalization efforts – not out of the kindness of its heart but because it believes it could yield even greater defense cooperation. That’s no small thing for a power that is at once arming Ukraine, shifting assets to the Indo-Pacific and maintaining capacity in the Middle East.

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The Bigger Picture Around Juniper Oak - by Caroline D
. Rose - for Geopolitical Futures - 2

Caroline D. Rose

Caroline Rose is a Senior Analyst and Head of the Power Vacuums program in the Human Security Unit at the New Lines Institute, where she focuses on contested territories, displacement, ungoverned spaces, and risks to human security. Prior to joining the New Lines Institute, Caroline served as an analyst at the forecasting firm and publication, Geopolitical Futures, where she worked on political, economic, and defense developments in the Middle East and Europe.

She is also the author of a special policy report on the Captagon drug trade–a culmination of her studies and field work as Research Associate for the LSE International Drug Policy Unit’s Middle East Initiative. Her commentary and work on defense issues, security challenges, and geopolitical developments have been featured in The Washington Post, BBC News, Foreign Policy, Politico, Al Jazeera, Voice of America, The Financial Times, The Independent, and other outlets. Caroline holds a Master’s of Science in International History from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and a Bachelor of Arts in International Studies from the American University’s School of International Service. She tweets at @CarolineRose8.

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